“‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'”
– T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”
Did you know the “twelve days of Christmas” are NOT in fact the twelve days leading up to Christmas? The whole thing was always a tad confusing to me…until I became an Episcopalian, and learned that Christmas is, in fact, a whole liturgical season! Great, right? It’s a short one—twelve days, in fact—lasting from Christmas Day (or, well, Christmas Eve, because holy days run on the sundown schedule borrowed from our Jewish brothers and sisters) until Epiphany, on January 6. In a number of other Christian cultures, Epiphany is a Big Deal, but this is less so in the WASP-y corners of U.S. Christianity.
Epiphany celebrates the Incarnation of Jesus, including events of his childhood and his baptism. In Western Christianity, the feast of Epiphany principally commemorates the coming of the Magi to the Christ child (representing Jesus’ physical manifestation to Gentiles). I know people with nativity sets who won’t add in the Magi until Epiphany. Sometimes the Magi start on the other side of the room and travel a little closer each day.
I didn’t really give the Magi much thought when I was younger. They were so foreign, so other. Besides, my preferred Christmas narrative is the one in Luke, and since the Magi only show up in Matthew’s account, I can find myself skipping right over them if I’m not careful.
If I lose the Magi in the Bible, though, I find them again in more recent texts. I like Eliot’s Magi, poetic license and all. I like that the poem is haunted and melancholy. It’s been almost two weeks since Advent ended—away with the feasting and jollity, already. I’m all for feasting, really, and even a rollicking carol or five, even if I do prefer my music in a minor key. It’s just that in the midst of the carols and the lights and the presents and the roasts, it’s easy, for me at least, to forget what a fundamentally earth-shattering event the coming of Christ was. I think Eliot captured a little of this, with his magus who follows a star and returns to a life that is suddenly topsy-turvy.
Madeleine L’Engle, writing on the same theme, has a poem titled “One King’s Epiphany” that begins and ends with the statement, “I shall miss the stars.” She plays on the idea that the Magi were astrologers, studying the stars—but after the journey to the Christ, the revelation of truth, this magus finds such truth and wisdom have robbed him of his old way of life.
Epiphany is a time to think about what Christ’s Incarnation means, and this doesn’t mean thinking about nativity sets and cute babies (I mean, we have no idea—Jesus could’ve been a really ugly kid). It means thinking about a completely other way of considering the world, of aligning values, and of acting in faith. It isn’t an easy season, and it probably involves certain losses, certain kinds of dying. I can’t say I like it, to be “no longer at ease” in my world. I will miss the stars.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.